The journey to Ithaca

The Team

Ben Williams | Stephen Darby, Rory McArdle, Alan Sheehan, James Meredith | Filipe Morais, Gary Liddle, Andy Halliday | Billy Knott | Jon Stead, James Hanson | Mark Yeates, Billy Clarke, Matthew Dolan

I

“Did not Odysseus beside the ships of the Argives offer thee sacrifice without stint in the broad land of Troy? Wherefore then didst thou conceive such wrath against him, O Zeus?”

Within minutes of the kick off of Bradford City’s defeat at Reading the game was written out. Before the first goal – a header at a corner from Hal Robson-Kanu – the Bantams players looked leaden footed, and heavy, and no good could come of this.

This game was the conclusion of a run of three games in six days that travelled 850 miles with a squad of around twenty players. When an innocuous shot hit Andrew Halliday and looped over Ben Williams to make the game 2-0 Reading had won before ten minutes were out.

It was not that Bradford City had not made a game of the game, it was that they could not.

II

“Cyclops, if any one of mortal men shall ask thee about the shameful blinding of thine eye, say that Odysseus, the sacker of cities, blinded it, even the son of Laertes, whose home is in Ithaca.”

Tuesday night in Coventry.

The locals had offered a 2 for 1 Valentine’s day offer with the assumption that Bradford City – away at Chelsea on the weekend the offer was announced – would not stand them up on the date.

By the time the Bantams did go to Coventry City Steven Pressley had been sacked from the Sky Blues. As his time came to an end Phil Parkinson was basking in the glow of besting Jose Mourinho. “The other special one”, or “dark ages football” as Pressley had said.

As it was City ground out the first half at The Ricoh Arena only to go behind to a goal at the end of the first half by Frank Nouble. Parkinson asked his side for more in the second half and got it. James Hanson ended the game forcing a header across and low to get past Lee Burge but Burge pushed the ball away.

The win would have been just reward for the effort but the effort seldom brings the reward you would want so much as the consolation along the way. Mark Yeates approached a free kick from twenty five yards and drill-curved the ball around the wall and low into the goal.

Yeates celebrated by kicking an advertising board in half. Perhaps he would have renamed the ground had Hanson’s header gone in but the point was a good result.

For Parkinson though his eye must have gone to the level of effort put in by his team which is in a race for promotion in League One which is often as much attrition than it is about ability. Every effort to recover a game is a resource which cannot be tapped again.

That at the end of the season City had beaten Coventry City at Valley Parade and drawn at The Ricoh would be a riposte to Pressley’s view about City and the dark ages, but Pressley was blinded now anyway.

III

And City moved on. Jordan Pickford exited to the blind at Sunderland to be replaced by Jak Alnwick from Newcastle United. Jason Kennedy joined Oliver McBurnie and Aaron Mclean out on loan.

The squad thinner and thinner, the demands on it more and more.

IV

And on the fifth the beautiful Calypso sent him on his way from the island after she had bathed him and clothed him in fragrant raiment. On the raft the goddess put a skin of dark wine, and another, a great one, of water, and provisions, too … Gladly then did goodly Odysseus spread his sail to the breeze;

The sight of Gary Jones comforts the heart.

Notts County at on Saturday and City have patched a team together to face Jones’ midfield that features Christopher Routis and Matthew Dolan. Gary Liddle played every moment of a season for Notts County but his legs looked heavy on his return to Meadow Lane.

He is not alone.

Filipe Morais has returned to the side following injury but the energy levels that follow him to in the position to do what he should do while allowing him the licence to do what he wants is missing. Andrew Davies’ resting continues and it starts to become clear that the injury that sidelined him at Coventry City is more than a trick of the light.

Jones’ energy levels are the stuff of legend at Bradford City but the heavy winter has taken its toll on him. The game is more a struggle than a battle.

Still City are in the ascendancy.

Jon Stead scored after good work from Fran├žois Zoko but County always looked capable of replying and Mike Edwards equalised. A point away is a good return and County are slowly ticking towards safety but with a game with Reading kicking off in 51 hours Parkinson could only worry.

Elsewhere Reading have dropped nine of the ten outfield players that make up their starting team. They are beaten four goals to one by Watford in The Championship. The sacrifice is obvious and available because Reading have concluded that they will not be promoted, while Bradford City fight on multiple fronts..

Gary Jones – and Garry Thompson – wished Bradford City players good luck on the way off the field and one could have spent a lifetime in the wash of nostalgia. The days when Jones and Thompson took on a challenge like Reading and emerged victorious, and took the spoils of victory, and all was golden and good.

V

Think for a moment, dear reader, and consider my offer. I would give you one moment at a football ground to stretch out for all time and to be all the moments at football. Pick the second that Hanson scored against Villa, or the sight of Arsenal’s fifth penalty coming back of the post, or Mark Yeates giving the world and the fireworks at Chelsea, or Wolves away or Liverpool at home.

Pick one and it is forever stretched before you as an endless sea, and you forever adrift on that sea, never to see land again but in the most blissful of ignorance.

The moment when Gary Jones pumped his fist at Wembley as promotion was sealed stretched out until the horizon and over.

And you would reject the offer?

You would.

VI

“Achilles, no man aforetime was more blessed nor shall ever be hereafter. For of old, when thou wast alive, we Argives honored thee even as the gods, and now that thou art here, thou rulest mightily among the dead. Wherefore grieve not at all that thou art dead, Achilles.”

“Nay, seek not to speak soothingly to me of death, glorious Odysseus. I should choose, so I might live on earth, to serve as the hireling of another, of some portionless man whose livelihood was but small, rather than to be lord over all the dead that have perished.”

Two goals in the first ten minutes and Bradford City are suffering not just the effects of two games in three days but the cumulative effects of the constant attrition of playing in League One. It is not that a player rested three days ago might be expected to be fresher than one who has rested for six it is that the inexorable navigation of games takes something which all.

The difference is not the binary state of being fresh or not. It is a team at 75% playing one at 60% (or fill your own figures in here) and the rest Reading gave up a game for is put into a whirlpool of effects which have left City incapable of putting in a performance to make a game.

Second to set off, second to the ball, and second best one would struggle to fault the City player’s effort. They gave all they could offer, but there was nothing to give. Jamie Mackie scored a third after Filipe Morais was sent off for a high foot on the once again superb Nathaniel Chalobah and one was left to conclude that City had lost the chance of a semi-final not after the odyssey that followed the 0-0 draw at Valley Parade but on the rough, unplayable field at Valley Parade that has begun to characterise Bradford City’s season.

One wonders if this game represents what The FA want from the Cup. Bradford City’s reward for progressing further in the competition is to be put into a position where the club is handicapped as the quality of the opposition increases.

A League One club plays Halifax Town after a third of the season. Millwall after a busy Christmas but every game after the third round brings a postponement which has to be played mid-week. By the time Reading at home came along City had been playing weekend-midweek every week for over a month.

And all the time the possible opposition gets harder and harder. That Reading were not Chelsea ignores the fact that they were the fourth side City had faced from a higher division. As the games get harder, the ability to play those games gets less and less.

And I do not say this as a complaint or to propose a solution but just to underline the absurdity of the situation and perhaps to illustrate how impressive it is that any club outside of the top 44 of the Premier League and Championship should get this far in The FA Cup. Last year’s beaten semi-finalists Sheffield United won more FA Cup games than the losing finalists Hull City, and as many as winners Arsenal.

VII

“Come, I pray thee, goddess, tell me this thing truly, if in any wise I might escape from fell Charybids, and ward off that other, when she works harm to my comrades.”

People on the pitch.

A sea of people perhaps becoming the sea of moments to stretch out as Reading reach Wembley for the first time since 1927. A sea of people ebbing and flowing in front of the Bradford City fans looking for trouble but not knowing what trouble really is.

A sea of people and through it walks Steven Darby. Fearless, heroic, in failure and in success. Steven Darby and Rory McArdle cutting through a sea of people fearless, heroic, in failure and in success.

A sea of people and through it walks Steven Darby.

Eleven games remain. The next three are at Valley Parade before the end of March.

And so then on to Ithaca.

Parkinson, Taylor and the case of the low standard

The Team

Jon McLaughlin | Stephen Darby, Rory McArdle, Andrew Davies, Adam Drury | Kyle Bennett, Matthew Dolan, Nathan Doyle, Adam Reach | Aaron McLean, James Hanson | Gary Thompson

Gillingham boss Peter Taylor was kind enough to raise an arm to greet the Bradford City supporters who for a brief time watched him manage the side and for a time he must have wondered how the noise from the Bantams stands had changed.

Taylor once heard his own team booed off after winning a match, and his leader Tommy Doherty was booed on the field, to a point where the then City boss suggested that if the fans thought jeering was so beneficial he should work it into training.

When he watched Aaron McLean sprint into the box as a James Hanson header was fed out wide to Adam Reach and probably feared that the once feared hit man would dart past the defender and do what he had not done in eight weeks as a Bradford City player and score. He did.

McLean’s relief was obvious after his goal as was the affection for him from the Bradford City supporters. Such a drastic change since Doherty being booed, Taylor must of thought, and as City pressed on his Gillingham side in a tide which should have washed the Kent side away how right he was in his criticism of the booing supporters.

McLean has been nursed through every game by fans willing him to be all he could be. It warms the heart to watch.

But little else did as City squandered near total domination over Gillingham and ended up with a draw which it might be said both managers will be happy with but that Phil Parkinson should take no delight in at all.

Gillingham’s open midfield in the first half left an area between the back four and the midfield which City were able to exploit and did so. Adam Reach and Kyle Bennett started to show an understanding as if linked by sixty yards of elastic one showing one side when then other came in for the ball. Matthew Dolan moved forwards well and City had a chance to expand on the one goal lead but that chance – or those chances – were squander.

Amine Linganzi moved into the gap in the second half and Adebayo Akinfenwa came on and City would soon be looking at an equaliser by Cody McDonald and an afternoon where standards were lowered.

A word on Akinfenwa. He is often a joke of a player massive as he is but today Referee Michael Bull, and a good few of the City players, were taken in by that joke. Akinfenwa played by his own set of rules about the physical game and Bull allowed him to do so. It was like watching a kid at school who was rubbish so he was allowed to be offside to even things up.

But Akinfenwa is not rubbish, he is over weight, and he is allowed to throw that weight around with far less intervention from the Referee than other players on the field suffer. It is as tedious as it is disappointing and Andrew Davies must have wondered why Akinfenwa was allowed to spend fifteen minutes at the start of the second half jumping at him rather than with him (including in the build up to the goal) without a free kick being given.

But had Davies played with the spirit that saw him not even give Akinfenwa a kick at Wembley last May then City would have won and that leads us to the lowering of standards which was in evidence especially in the second half.

City have started to accept less than they should and this Parkinson should be worried about this.

First let me draw a distinction here between the idea that fans deserve more – a phrase I hate – or that players should always score with every shot or never make mistakes or other things which go under the idea of not accepting less and focus on this very specific issue of the lowering of standards.

Take Matthew Dolan on seventy minutes when the ball came to him thirty five yards out and when falling he lashed a ball which would not trouble the goalkeeper even slightly. Take Nathan Doyle putting in a half challenge in midfield and complaining that he has fouled. Take Kyle Bennett being challenged in his own half and unlike Adam Reach’s Elvis hips shimmy into the box in the first half falling and darting eyes to the Referee.

Parkinson needs to set a higher standard than this. He needs to underline to the players what playing well looks like and not accept that the players had a jolly good try at doing something else. Players need to play with their heads and with the trust in their teammates, and they need to play in a way that understands that they have teammates and that much of the time their jobs are to serve those teammates.

There was a moment in the game when Kyle Bennett, furthest forward, chased a ball and on catching it hooked it to the goalkeeper tamely. It was not understanding where your teammates are, it was not playing intelligently, and it was the sign of a standard slipped that Parkinson has to address.

Players are playing for contracts – they always are – and Parkinson will look at Adam Reach and feel that he has found a player who can raise the level of the team but many of the other players who may not be at Valley Parade next season are playing under a standard which they need to be to worth keeping at the club.

And again I underline the difference between holding a high standard and highlighting mistakes. It is not that players are pilloried for mistakes it is that some of the players will have left the field today feeling the did “alright” in a “decent result” and I believe that that is not the right attitude for a team looking to progress.

Today City needed to play to a higher standard and did not. Parkinson’s reaction to that – if he thinks that the way Matthew Dolan played today will replace Gary Jones (eventually) or the way Kyle Bennett played will be a substitute for how Kyel Reid played – will define next season.

Jones and the rage against the dying of the light

The Team

Jon McLaughlin | Stephen Darby, Andrew Davies, Carl McHugh, Matthew Bates | Kyle Bennett, Gary Jones, Matthew Dolan, Adam Reach | Aaron McLean, James Hanson | Gary Thompson

When Gary Jones scored City’s equaliser with five minutes left of a blustery scrap at Valley Parade it seemed that the Bantams may be set to lay siege to the Crewe Alexandra goal for a winner in a game which the visitors never trailed it but ultimately went home happy.

Instead City seemed exhausted and the game ended with little more to report. Having refused to be beaten twice it looked very much like Phil Parkinson’s team could not muster much more. Bradford City – it seems – have reached a limit.

Looking down the teamsheet at the number of new or younger players in the side one might think that Parkinson has come to the same conclusion. He gave Carl McHugh a start to allow the young defender to show what he can do. McHugh misjudged controlling the ball with his head a dozen minutes into the game and Uche Ikpeazu steamed past him to lob home an opening goal.

McHugh floundered in tough conditions. Fingers were pointing at left back Matthew Bates in the murmuring of supporters but McHugh as central defender failed to command his part of the backline all afternoon and will have to step up his level of performance to turn potential into progress as a player.

Similar improvement is needed for Kyle Bennett who looked as lost a player on the right flank as one can recall. Bennett – as with a good few of his team mates – is ostensibly playing for a contract at Bradford City next season but proved very easy to defend against for the visitors and offered little for his teammates to find useful. He represented neither an outlet to pass to for the midfield or a danger when on the ball. The combination of these failings meant that much of the progress down the right in the first half resulted in long, raking balls to no one.

Bennett needs to do a single thing well to start being useful and I’d suggest that thing would be to improve possession when he gets it rather than cheaply giving it away either to an easy tackle or a wayward shot.

Better was Adam Reach who needs to get involved more but shows signs of attempting to do that. In the second half he combined well with fellow Middlesbrough loanee and debutant Matthew Dolan who had a better second half prompting play and able to say at the end of the game that the two Crewe goals and most of the attacking play came from going around his position rather than through it.

Ikpeazu’s second came after City had taken the game to Crewe but been caught with an extremely high line which Stephen Darby was outpaced to exploit. It sparked a revival that manifested itself as Aaron McLean turned back a ball across the box for James Hanson to thump in from eight yards.

A minute later and Hanson’s leap found McLean who used the strength he offers over Nahki Wells to tuck the ball back to Jones. A well hit shot and the power given by a fierce wind did the rest.

That Mathias Pogba scored for Crewe seemed to go against the spirit of proceedings as City launched a series of assaults. James Hanson spurned the best chance after he had taken and beaten the impressive Mark Ellis (different one, me thinks) only to fire over and it seemed that City lacked the ruthlessness that Crewe were showing.

Crewe, for what it is worth, seemed a surprisingly unsophisticated outfit firing balls forward to big, fast attacking players. After the years of Dario Gradi one got used to the idea of the Railwaymen playing good football. Nothing lasts forever.

Nothing at all.

To watch Gary Jones is to highlight City’s problems. I’m often mystified by modern football’s desire to make definitive judgements on events in progress. Jones – one is alternatively told – is either past it and needs to be replaced or he had fuel left for more and perish the thought he would ever not be in the midfield.

For me the joy of watching Jones is seeing how he valiantly pushes back the drawing of the night. There will come a day when Jones no longer should take his place in the City midfield but that day was not today.

He got to a flick back – the Hanson/McLean partnership starting to create goals – and lashed the ball low and long to nestle into the back of the goal.

Jones represent the state of the team at the moment. The limitations are obvious but the character is to push those limits as far as they can be. To play in the way Jones does that says that for all the sight of dark you will rage against the night.

The aforementioned Wells talked about crying the day he left City because he would miss the team which is already breaking up.

It’s impossible to know how many more vociferous moments Parkinson’s team of 2013 before it’s last hurrah but Jones’ arrowed strike was one of them.

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